Wolves in Winter

Wolves in Winter

by Lisa Hilton


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In 15th century Florence, orphaned Mura learn that her magical heritage makes her a precious prize in this vividly researched historical drama of love, betrayal, and witchcraft

Five-year-old Mura is a strange and bewitching child. Daughter of a Nordic mother and Spanish father, she has been tutored in both Arabic and the ancient mythology of the north. But when her widower father is taken by the Inquisition, Mura is sold to a Genoese slaver. In the port of Savona, Mura's androgynous looks and unusual abilities fetch a high price. She is bought as a house slave for the powerful Medici, arriving in Florence as the city prepares for war against the French. When the family are forced to flee, Mura finds herself gifted to the notorious Lioness of Romagna, Countess Caterina Sforza. Beautiful, ruthless, and intelligent, the Countess is fascinated by Mura's arcane knowledge. As the Lioness educates her further in the arts of alchemy, potions, and poisons, Mura becomes a potent weapon in the Machiavellian intrigues of the Renaissance court.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848874688
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 06/01/2014
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lisa Hilton is the author of four historical biographies including Athenais, The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, and Queen's Consort. She has written for such publications as ElleGQ, Marie Claire, the New Yorker, the Observer, the Telegraph, and Vogue.

Read an Excerpt

Wolves in Winter

By Lisa Hilton

Atlantic Books Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Lisa Hilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85789-709-1


Along with everything else, they took my name. When I came to the palazzo they washed me in a brass tub in the kitchen, as though I was a fine lady's pet monkey to be picked over for fleas. I would not speak to them, so they turned out my red dress to look for any signs of me. My mother had sewn it for me, cut down from her own wedding gown. It was the finest tabby silk, pomegranate-coloured, so when it turned in the light it was sometimes the rich crimson pink of a sunset, sometimes as bright and crisp as the skin of an orange. The silk came from Kashmir, my papa told me, a mountain place like our city of Toledo, only the mountains were so high only God could see their peaks. My mother stitched her love into every delicately worked gather on the bodice and sleeves. Inside, where my heart would be, she placed a pentagram, and inside that she stitched my name. Mura. From the old language, when the caliphs were kings in Toledo. Mura: wish, desire.

They saw my mother's mark, but they could not read it, for it was aljamiado, their letters in our first tongue. I can speak Spanish and Arabic and even a little Latin, but I had no words in theirs yet, and I should not have used them if I had. All my words were kept for curses. Mura, my mother stitched, for I was her wish. But I was no longer Mura Benito, the bookseller's child from Toledo. I was esclava. Slave. They took away my doll and my red dress and gave me a coarse grey robe, stuffed my feet into heavy wooden clogs. They clipped my hair close to my head and took it away in a kerchief, to sell for a vanity. My brow bound in a black striped linen cloth, I kept my eyes to the ground and became invisible, just another moving cog in the machine of the palazzo. I had learned by then that my face brought trouble. I became Mora, Moor, because I am Spanish and they knew no better, even though my skin is not plum-black but the colour of new gold.

The world shrank until it was contained within the walls of the kitchen. I marked the passing of days with the church bells that sounded dimly from the city beyond the thick stone, and with the journeys of thin wands of light that probed through the high windows. I shuffled about, silent except for my newly clumsy feet, performing the simple tasks they set for me. I stripped beans, separating the pink streaked pods from the creamy husks, I washed salt from the muslin sacks of capers unloaded from wagons which brought supplies from the countryside, I picked stalks from spinach. For hours and hours I stood at the stone troughs and scrubbed plate, rubbing it over first with sand, then rinsing in grey, greasy water, until my hands puffed out like fresh white rolls, and then, as the weather grew colder, cracked and reddened like an old woman's. Twice a day I sat at a trestle in the stench of the household's sweat, knowing I stank as they did, and tried to eat their coarse Florence food. Bland and greasy, everything smelling of pig; hard, dull-tasting bread, murky pea soup, disgusting withered shrivels of pork rind. If I allowed myself to think of the hammam, of black soap and orange flower water and the wonderful feeling of being clean inside as well as out, I knew I should go mad, so I kept my eyes down and did my work and tried to make myself as dull as a pebble.

Gradually, the sounds around me resolved into sense. First objects – cloth, bowl, spoon – then slowly I was able to understand more and more of the speech around me. As I worked, I repeated the words to myself, though I would not speak them aloud.

Mora the slave did not speak.

I learned that the palazzo belonged to Piero de Medici, the son of Lorenzo who was called the great, Il Magnifico. There were wonders in the house beyond the kitchen, they said, though I had seen the courtyard and did not think it so very fine. All the business of Florence passed in the palazzo, for Piero was a great man, one of the greatest in the whole of Italy, richer than any prince, for all that his blood was not noble, but tainted with the ink of the counting house. The palazzo was never still. From the moment the street gate opened at Prime until the porters closed it at Lauds there came streams of people, to petition, to plead, to bargain, taking their seats on the wooden benches set into the walls of the courtyard, trying to mind their dignity as Piero kept them waiting for weeks. Clerks scuttled self-importantly back and forth with their account books and abacuses, processions of factors and lawyers, notaries, priests and ambassadors, artists and gentlemen and even bishops passed through to hover expectantly at the foot of the great staircase which the likes of me were not permitted to climb.

Sometimes, ladies came to pay visits to Donna Alfonsina, Piero's wife, who had recently given him a baby son. The kitchen people said that Donna Alfonsina was a proud lady, a Roman princess who thought herself too good for Florence. I did not think that so wonderful, for everything was grey in Florence and the sun never seemed to shine; but the house slaves were affronted – they counted themselves Medici too, part of the family, and so took up their dignity at Donna Alfonsina's disdain. As if she would pay them any more mind than she might a fly, black and buzzing about beneath her as they were. I saw the ladies sometimes, as I crossed to the loggia lugging a basket of fresh linens for the noon dinner. Their bright silks and fresh skins were like sudden rainbows in a cave, so that it hurt me to look at them.

The kitchen folk thought me dumb. At first they tried to rile me, with overset basins, cuffs and slaps I did not deserve. My arms blued with sly cruel pinchings, then when I did not cry out they fell to coaxing, wheedling me into speech. But so long as I was careful never to raise my eyes to them, they would, in time, cease to notice me. That was all I wished. To be Mora the slave and stay safe until I could become myself again.

And that way, a year went by. A year with no flowers or books, no walks in the meadows beyond the walls with the sun setting like pink velvet over the mountains, a year with no scent except the faint lavender rustle of a lady's train and my own sour unwashed body, a year in the finest house in the finest city in Italy and nothing but heaps of greens to look at to soothe the keening in my soul.

At night, lying on my straw pallet in the unsteady peace of the chamber of sleeping women, I mourned. I mourned and I dreamed. I crushed my arms across my chest to dull my breaking heart and I walked the banks of that crystal river beneath Toledo, by buildings of marble as pale and delicate as the first frost on the boughs of the almond trees, and I searched for my mother and my papa.

I wore my red dress that day, the day the world changed. That was all I had of my mother, the thread of her own heart's desire against mine. She named me because she rejoiced that she would have a little girl of her own – wish, desire. She knew she would die of me, my mama. That is why she placed the sign above my heart to keep me safe, since she would never hold me close to her own. But she was with me, my papa told me, she was always with me. If I was ever lonely, or afraid, my mother would come to me in my dreams to keep me safe.

For all the while I was a girl, in Toledo, I pictured my mother like one of the Holy Virgins I saw painted on the wall when we went to Mass, distant and serene, the gold of her hair melding with the gold cloth of her mantle, a pool of sunlight where I could dip my hand whenever I needed. I was not lonely. I had my papa, and he was all the world to me.

My father, Samuel Benito, was a bookseller. Books were his livelihood, and it was books which brought him to his death. We lived in the Zocodover, the ancient market quarter of Toledo, and buyers came to our crooked little house from all over Europe. My father explained to me that in the time of the caliphs, the convivencia, the libraries of the Moors had been preserved with all their learning and it was this which made Toledo so important for scholars, a place of tolerance and translation, where moriscos like us could meet Jews and Christians as equals, united in respect for the ancient learning of the lands of the East.

My father was not a doctor, but that learning taught him how to cure sickness. Often, after consulting his books, he would take me with him to the slopes above town to gather plants that he stewed and ground to make medicines for the people who would tap at the door after dark. Sometimes they paid him, if they were rich, but many did not. Not that his kindness served him anything, in the end. That last spring, we would go up to the meadows as we had always done, where the new grass was a pale gold-green and the hills were carpeted with crocuses, opening their flimsy violet petals to the ripening sun. He named them for me, set them softly in my hands so that I should know their touch and smell, told me of their qualities and how they might be used.

'We'll never starve, little Mura,' he would tell me, 'for people are always sick, and they are always afraid.'

Fear had come to Toledo by then. Fire and fear and treachery blazed through our city which had once been celebrated for its knowledge and harmony. The Castilian queen and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, called out their troops to drive away the infidel, and the city turned upon itself like a rabid dog. Families who had lived for generations as Christians were persecuted as morisco, heretics who secretly worshipped the Moorish God. Neighbours whispered against each other in the market and each day the bell of my father's shop rang less often, until weeks would go by when nothing but the sweet mountain breezes stealing in through the shutters disturbed the golden dust on the heaped volumes. My father began to parcel up his treasures and send them away, to merchants in Venice and Paris where the danger was not so great, and at night I would hear the scratch of his pen as he went over his accounts, squinting behind his seeing glass in the light of a single tallow candle, sighing over how long he might hold out against ruin.

My father began to insist that we attended Mass each week in the still-unfinished cathedral, and afterwards he would walk about with my hand tucked into his arm, bowing politely to everyone he recognised, making sure we were seen. Although the bags of rice in the larder slumped and grew thin, and we no longer ate meat except on holidays, I was not afraid. I was glad that my father had more time for me, now that he was no longer at his correspondence at all hours, tracing out the works his clients sought. My papa had always been so gentle with me, so careful and patient. He had fed and bathed and dressed me from a babe, with all the tenderness I knew my mother would have shown; but he had often been weary and distracted, and those nights when his friends came to drink wine and talk with him in the parlour I had known better than to disturb him. Talk, I knew, was his only pleasure now my mother was gone. So, now that my father's friends had left Toledo, and those that remained would greet one another with no more than a swift flicker of eyes as they passed in the streets, my father had time for me.

He began, with increasing urgency, to talk to me of the old learning. He would stroke my hair in the warm light of the stove and whisper to me, as I fell towards sleep, of Zoroaster of Chaldea whose learning was carried to Egypt, where the ibis-headed god Thoth invented writing. How King Solomon had learned to summon angels, and how all the arts derived from the seven principles of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geography and astronomy. These were my childhood stories, the names of the magi the heroes of my fairytales, kings who travelled on camels over golden deserts, summoning magical creatures from the movements of the stars. Like all odd children, I did not think it odd.

The only time I ever saw my father angry was when I questioned his passion. I was a good Christian girl, I knew my catechism and I asked my father whether it was right to speak of such things, whether this learning was not sinful. He banged his fist on the table with such force that his wine glass jumped to the floor and shattered, and I was so shocked to see the rage on his gentle face that I began to weep. He gathered me to him and stroked my hair.

'I'm sorry, little one. Don't cry. Listen. "Wisdom and knowledge shall be granted unto thee, and I will give thee riches and wealth and honour such as none of the kings have had that have been before thee, neither shall any after have the like."'

'What does that mean?'

'It's from the Bible, Mura. The Chronicles. And none of these holy murderers with their false trials and their hateful piety know anything of knowledge. It is no heresy to seek to know, to understand the world God created for us. Their torture and their persecution and the fears they spread, that is true evil, because it is the evil of ignorance, and ignorance defends itself with cruelty. Remember that.'

My papa had told me many times how, hundreds of years ago, before the Spanish king El Sabio came to Toledo, the city belonged to the caliphs. And how before that, before the walls and the churches were built, men came here from the north, men who crossed the mountains and mixed their pale hair and eyes with those of the people they found here. How they scratched their runes into the rocks and how a century ago their magic had been collected and sent over the world on pages of vellum.

'That is why our city is so special, little Mura. Many learned men came here and they brought books with them, marvellous books that told of medicines and the movements of the stars. They came from all over the world to study and talk here in Toledo, and some people say that there is another city, under the earth, a magic city with tunnels instead of roads and palaces in caves, and a river as cold and clear as frozen diamonds. If you can go down into that city, they say, and fill a flask of water in the river, then it will make peach trees bloom in winter time and cover the earth with blossom.'

I could never hear enough about the magical city, though my father told me I must not speak of it to anyone but him. He said that some people were afraid of such things, and that was why the city had to be kept secret, because people would try to destroy what they feared. I knew that there was nothing holy in the fires that burned in Toledo in those years, nothing of love or peace. Only ignorance and the love of power, and fear is the greatest weapon of the powerful. I knew that books are feared because their strength is silent, their challenge unspoken. My papa taught me then how knowledge that knows when to stay silent can never be destroyed.

The winter came. I was excited, for my father had told me I was grown big enough to wear my red dress for the Feast of Kings, Epifania. I had spent the afternoon carefully painting a gold crown Papa had helped me to cut out from packing paper. He put me to bed early, with a cup of warm milk and cinnamon, stroking my hair and telling me to stay quiet as a leaf. The early winter dark had not yet fallen, but Papa had already shut up the house and was moving uneasily in the dim rooms on the ground floor. Now and then I heard a curse and a crash as a heap of books toppled, and I wanted to laugh at his silliness. Why did he not light a candle? It was cosy in my little bed, which Papa had moved next to the stove to keep me warm, and I was dozing off under the blankets when I heard a tap at the street door and my father's steps going to answer it. The hinge creaked as it closed, and I heard some muttered conversation; it wasn't hard to pick out the husky boom of Adara's curious voice, even though she was trying to whisper.

I liked Adara. I liked her bold swaying walk and the sour-spicy smell of her large bosom when she hugged me. Like many in our city, her skin was as black as a ripe fig and she wore huge hoops of twisted gold in her ears, which she would take out and let me play with as I waited for my father, dangling my feet in the blue-tiled fountain in her courtyard when it was hot or sitting snugly by the fire in winter on a settle covered all over with flowers worked in silk. Adara lived in a fine house with several other ladies, and I thought that she must be very rich, even though she had no husband.

Her name in our tongue meant 'virgin'. I asked my father once why she wore no habit, if she was a nun, and he smiled and said she belonged to a convent of a sort, but that he did no business there. That wasn't true, I said, because he took powders and salves to Adara that he made up in the back of our shop, and I had seen her handing him pesos to put in his purse.


Excerpted from Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton. Copyright © 2012 Lisa Hilton. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


PART ONE: FLORENCE – 1492–1496,
PART TWO: FORLI – 1496–1499,

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He raised his eyebrows and smiled.